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Dental care for refugees and other minority groups

Escaping persecution can be one of the most dangerous, traumatising experiences in a person’s life. During their journey to safety, it can be especially challenging for refugees and asylum seekers to access important services such as dental care.

Dr Joanne Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer and Endodontics Consultant at the University Dental Hospital, is working with a team of student volunteers to deliver dental care to refugees and other minority groups in Manchester.

“Two years ago I attended an event where the University’s Social Responsibility team spoke about working with people escaping conflict. It made me wonder how much research was being done into dental care provision for asylum seekers and refugees,” says Joanne.

“Our dental students need patients to treat and the asylum seekers need treatment, so I wanted to bring those two groups together.”

Through regular clinics at the Rainbow Haven centre in Gorton, Joanne and her team of student volunteers provide dental treatment to displaced and marginalised people. At Rainbow Haven, refugees and asylum seekers can also access services such as healthcare, family support, advice, employment training and other important resources.  

Providing vital treatment

Every six to eight weeks, the students visit Rainbow Haven to provide oral hygiene instruction, toothbrushes, toothpaste and advice. If refugees and asylum seekers opt to receive treatment, they can arrange to undergo procedures such as tooth extraction, fillings and denture fittings.

So far, student volunteers have provided free dental care to more than 40 asylum seekers and refugees from countries such as Syria, Iran and Sudan.

“Many have endured terrible living conditions, meaning that they usually have a broad range of dental care needs,” Joanne explains. “So our students can put their skills to good use.”

Kate Percival, Manager of Rainbow Haven, says: “It’s been so valuable to have students from The University of Manchester at our centre carrying out free check-ups and identifying any problems. Our service users really appreciated the service, thank you.”

Overcoming barriers

After arriving in the UK, asylum seekers and refugees are faced with numerous challenges when trying to access health services.  

“Many have been turned away when attempting to register for treatment in the UK. This happens because healthcare providers are often unaware of their rights to free healthcare and dental care,” says Joanne.

In fact, asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to free primary and secondary care, including dental care, prescriptions for medicine and eyesight tests.

While waiting for their refugee status to be approved, many must also survive on a restricted budget, so the cost of public transport can prevent them from attending healthcare and dental appointments.

Natasha Whitcombe, a student volunteer, offering oral hygiene advice to a patient.

Natasha Whitcombe, a student volunteer, offering oral hygiene advice to a patient.

Supporting LGBT patients

Joanne and her student volunteers are dedicated to helping other marginalised groups as well. Recently, they collaborated with the LGBT Foundation to run a dental clinic for more than 20 LGBT patients in Manchester.

“First- and second-year students volunteered at this session; this group of patients typically have a different set of healthcare needs compared to some of the complex cases that present at the clinic for asylum seekers,” Joanne says.

A patient who received treatment said: “This was an excellent service; as a transgender person, accessing healthcare can be challenging. Having the service located in a safe space helped me overcome that barrier and access dental healthcare for the first time since coming out.”

The team went on to deliver a clinic specifically for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom were escaping persecution in their home country because of their sexuality or gender-reassignment. At that session, 20 more patients received free dental treatment and oral hygiene advice from student volunteers.

Joanne and student volunteers with staff from the LGBT Foundation

Joanne and student volunteers with staff from the LGBT Foundation

Making a difference

It isn’t just the patients who benefit from attending the dental clinic; it is also a unique opportunity for student volunteers to hone a number of key skills. 

“Volunteering at the clinic for refugees has given me a real confidence boost and improved my communication skills,” says Natasha Whitcombe, a fourth-year Dentistry student. “It’s an opportunity to give tailored oral health advice to a patient population that might not otherwise be able to access this type of service.”

Lydia Power, another student volunteer, adds: “I’ve gained experience of treating a much wider range of patients and tackled challenges such as language barriers. We’re getting real-world clinical experience and helping the community at the same time.”

All of this hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Joanne’s project received recognition in the University's Making a Difference Awards 2019, where her work was highly commended in the outstanding public and community engagement category.

Joanne says: “Going forward, we’re going to continue to deliver the dental drop-ins at Rainbow Haven in Gorton so that we can provide this service to as many refugees as possible."

Find out more about studying dentistry at The University of Manchester.